On August 25, I happened to discover that it was the 110th birth anniversary of one of my favorite dancers in old Hollywood films, Ruby Keeler. Admittedly, Ruby Keeler never dazzled me with her dancing the way Eleanor Powell or Ann Miller did, but she has always ranked among the dancers whom I most enjoyed watching. She had something special about her that I never could quite put into words – until I found a good description of what that thing was in a blog post by Trav S.D. at Travalanche:
Movie fans love her tap dancing; most of the dance experts I know tend to be less generous with respect to her abilities in that area. One quality all agree on though is her appeal. She possessed an extremely rare mix of innocence and sensuality that is like cat nip to a male audience.
Thinking about that combination of innocence and sensuality, I realized that it could fit the description of a few of the dancers whom we know from Hindi films, too. But there was one dancer in particular whom I had seen described with those same words, and a very famous one at that. Those were the exact words that Jerry Pinto used to describe Helen in his book Helen: The life and Times of an H-Bomb. Quoting the line as it appears among other excerpts in the blog Blissful Nirvana:
She had the mix of innocence and sensuality that separates the girls from the women.
Might we say that Ruby Keeler was a sort of tap-dancing Hollywood equivalent to Helen (though she had her peak a couple of decades earlier)? I am not sure, but that idea would at least be a fun way to explain how they ended up dancing in these similar scenes . . .
One of Ruby Keeler’s greatest dances occurred in Ready, Willing and Able (1937). The song “Too Marvelous for Words” goes on for over seven minutes, but fortunately, a couple of people on YouTube excerpted the typewriter dance, which is the most impressive part of the number by far. Ruby Keeler’s dance partner in this scene is Hal Dixon, and they both do wonderfully tapping on the keys of a typewriter. (And by the way, no, the brilliant choreography is not by Busby Berkeley, though one would think so; the choreographer is Bobby Connolly.)
Now, I am sure that most good Helen fans are instantly going to know which dance I want to compare it to. That would be Helen’s “Typewriter Tip Tip Tip” dance in the Merchant Ivory film Bombay Talkie (1970).
I guess that this Helen scene (with dance partner Shashi Kapoor) might seem awfully short after such a buildup (and by the way, this is pretty much the entire scene – nothing cut here), but it is long enough to show that the director James Ivory had to have seen the Ruby Keeler dance and taken directly from it. (Or else, some choreographer or other kind of designer/director must have seen the Ruby Keeler dance. But since I can’t find separate listings that might give me a hint regarding who else could have come up with this, I will assume that it was James Ivory.) Of course, this film is not a real classic Bollywood movie but an English-language film sardonically about people involved in Bollywood movies, but that little difference does not discount the fact that Helen was just perfect for this dance!
The next Ruby Keeler dance that I had in mind is from Footlight Parade (1933), and the choreographer in this case was, indeed, Busby Berkeley (for director Lloyd Bacon). Here, Ruby Keeler dances with none other than James Cagney. It is the scene revolving around Shanghai Lil.
Now, the director Shakti Samanta and/or choreographer Surya Kumar and/or other people involved in the film Howrah Bridge (1958) must have known about Ruby Keeler as Shanghai Lil when they created the following scene. Although this breakthrough dance for Helen might have been a spoof on a whole group of American films or dance scenes, the reference to Shanghai Lil is unmistakable. (There is even a reference to Shanghai in the song!)
It would be fun to find out if there were any other dances that Ruby Keeler and Helen both did that were similar in some way. I don’t know if I have supplied enough evidence to show that they really did have similar qualities, but I like to think so, especially since I am fond of both.
P.S. It would also be fun sometime to draw up a whole list of Indian film dances influenced by older American ones. We hear a lot about influenced songs, but not quite as much about influenced dance scenes (whether or not they contain influenced songs, too). In this blog, I have mentioned a couple other such examples before. I noticed one definite similarity a little over six years ago, when I asked the question, Did Eleanor Powell’s dance in Honolulu (1939) influence Sitara Devi’s dance in Roti (1942)? And I couldn’t help posting something when I found out about another influenced song and dance several months before that – A Song Performed by Carmen Miranda and Vasunthara Devi aka Vyjayanthimala’s Mother. If I find out about a few more examples, then I will be sure to combine everything into a nice and full post! :)